How the "Millennial" Generation Works
Lauren Stiller Rikleen
Lauren Stiller Rikleen is the executive director of the Bowditch Institute for Women’s Success, a mediator, and a senior partner with Bowditch & Dewey, LLP.
You have probably heard it many times during speeches or panel discussions. Sometimes the tone is harsh; other times there is a sense of resignation. Yet the premise is generally the same: “Associates today don’t want to work hard.” Then comes the inevitable comparisons of the experiences of the Baby Boomers and the expectations of the generation currently graduating from law school.
“Law students today are asking questions I would never have dared ask,” is a frequent refrain of law firm hiring committee members. Both men and women interviewees are questioning what a firm’s culture is like, the firm’s hourly expectations, and whether the firm allows for flexible work arrangements. Even as interviewers are surprised by the frequency of these questions, they are recognizing that for law firms to compete in today’s talent pool the answers are essential.
Law firms also must recognize that these questions represent significant changes in attorney demographics that warrant far more than a reduced-hours policy. Critically, law firms must recognize that these are not the questions of people who are reluctant to work hard. In fact, the “Millennial Generation” entering today’s workforce in ever-increasing numbers arrives accomplished and with high expectations.
Born between approximately 1980 and the early 1990s, Millennials (sometimes called Generation Y or Echo Boomers) are the most diverse generation in U.S. history and the largest since the infamous Baby Boomers exploded into America’s consciousness. Millennials overshadow their immediate predecessors, Gen X, because they outnumber them by nearly three times. In general, Millennials are born of working parents and have more disposable income than previous generations.
Unlike their rebellious Boomer parents, Millennials tend to have had stronger relationships with their own parents through their teenage years. They also are used to being regularly praised and rewarded for their efforts at school and at play. They have been referred to as the “Everybody Gets a Trophy” generation because of their parents’ insistence that their early sports experiences be collaborative and positive opportunities. From their early days of shared rewards, constant media stimulation, and technology savvy, they have become a generation accustomed to quick answers, a constant flow of information and new ideas, and immediate gratification. These are the characteristics that the Millennials bring into workplaces largely led by the Baby Boomer generation, whose own youthful experiences were markedly different.
Teenage Boomers demanded change through rebellion and revolutionary tactics. Their early years were permeated by street protests and standing up against an unpopular war and military draft that threatened all income levels. Their friends were killed, their heroes were assassinated, the political establishment seemed oblivious to the changing world, and generational conflict was rampant.
Despite their very different upbringings, Baby Boomers and their progeny are two generations that should have the capacity to work extraordinarily well together. They are both smart, work at a fast pace, and often exhibit great passion for what they do. Yet the differences between their styles and expectations, which are shaped by their life experiences, lead Baby Boomers to lament that associates today are not committed workers.
The reality is that Boomers have much to learn from their younger workers. The Millennial Generation is, in fact, willing to work hard. They reject, however, the notion of “face time” as a means of success and expect clear assignments, regular feedback, and reward for their efforts. They also expect to be active and engaged parents, which means having the time to parent. They will not stay for long if they do not understand the big picture and the opportunities that lie ahead. The expectations of the Millennials actually translate into the fundamentals of a better workplace. An organization that carefully trains all of its employees, sets clear goals and expectations, and provides regular feedback to ensure that individuals learn with each assignment is a model for success.
For Millennials to communicate their needs effectively with Boomers and avoid the “lazy” stereotype, they must demonstrate respect for the choices the Boomers have made. Remember, most of the Boomers in legal workplaces are there because work is a fundamental value in their lives. When Millennials focus on time away from work, the Boomers often read it as a dismissal of their own work ethic. Millennials may find allies in senior lawyers who are comfortable talking about their own children, who seem devoted to attending family events, or whose lives may be currently impacted by the needs of aging parents. These individuals are more likely to help a younger lawyer navigate the workplace and address any concerns.
Millennials who seek better training or mentoring programs should approach their Boomer supervisors with concrete suggestions that, if implemented, will help stem attrition and develop better lawyers. This type of feedback is more likely to be viewed as creating improvements for the greater good of the firm rather than asking for personal favors. Fortunately, more law firms and other legal workplaces are beginning to understand the huge economic costs of continued high attrition and should be more willing to listen.
If law firms are to be truly successful in recruiting and retaining law school graduates, Baby Boomer firm managers need to understand the defining characteristics of the “Millennial Generation.” Then they can put in place strategies to ensure that today’s new lawyers are tomorrow’s law firm leaders.